Under Two Flags: How Nancy Giddens Built Bridges between Black and Puerto Rican Neighbors

Editor’s note: In anticipation of this week’s #OAH2019/#OAH19 in Philadelphia, the March Metro of the Month was the City of Brotherly love (you can see here for all of our offerings; it begins with the post below but if you scroll down you’ll find all the others). We offer a final new post to whet your intellectual appetites for the city. To get more info about the conference click over to the organization’s website, where you can also download the OAH’s program for the event.

By Alyssa Ribeiro

Ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico—due to both humanmade and natural disasters—has accelerated migration from the island to Philadelphia. In the past decade, the city replaced Chicago as the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans on the US mainland, behind only New York City. These migrants joined enclaves established in the early and mid-twentieth century. Even more so than today, earlier Puerto Rican arrivals found a city sharply divided between black and white. Neighbors often dismissed them as “foreigners,” even though they were U.S. citizens. Building relationships across racial and cultural divides thus became crucial to migrants’ opportunities in a new city. Black Philadelphians were generally more likely allies than their white counterparts.

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Featured image (at top): Church of the Advocate located on the Northwest corner of Eighteenth and Diamond Streets was an important organizing space for social movements in North Philadelphia, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Beginning in the mid-1950s, the growth of Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican population quickly accelerated. Clustered in a handful of North Philadelphia neighborhoods, recent arrivals shared space and resources with a predominantly black population. In these years, Puerto Ricans forged early ties with black communities through Nancy Giddens, a middle-class, African-American woman who was a well-known socialite and journalist. These ties prefigured relationships that would coalesce into multiracial grassroots organizing and political coalitions in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

Nancy Giddens was born Nancy Bryant in Portsmouth, Virginia and moved to Philadelphia sometime prior to 1940. She attended business school in the city and settled with her husband Earl in West Philadelphia, where they raised one son. She was an expert seamstress with an interest in fashion, the social scene, travel, and charity work. She played active roles in many organizations, and for two decades she spoke to the public through the pages of the Philadelphia Tribune, a twice-weekly black newspaper.

Giddens was involved in an array of established organizations and created several of her own. From the early 1950s, she coordinated the activities of the Mahlon M. Lewis Guild of Greater St. Matthews Independent Church, where she worshipped. She was founder and president of the Traveleers Civic-Social Club, a group through which Philadelphia professional women traveled and offered their service. She also organized fundraising events for Heritage House, an educational and cultural institution for black youth. Her civic activism gained wide recognition, and in the midst of the Vietnam War Giddens became the first black woman to be appointed to a draft board in the state of Pennsylvania. Such representation mattered during a foreign conflict that disproportionately took its toll on communities of color.

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Discover Puerto Rico U.S.A. Where the Americas meet, Frank S. Nicholson, between 1936 and 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Giddens’ love of travel took her to Puerto Rico regularly beginning in 1955. Friends often threw lavish bon voyage parties before her departures from home, with as many as one hundred guests. Her daughter-in-law, Marion Gracia, said Giddens was “loved” on the island, adding “She was their queen, and she received many honors during her visits there.” [1] This reception likely reflected her warm personality as well as her desire to bring much-needed resources to island residents. Giddens also warmly received visitors from the island back in Philadelphia, on one occasion throwing an elaborate dinner party for Reverend and Mrs. Jose Anthony Luciano from Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Giddens’s personal relationship with the Lucianos and others on the island guided the Traveleer’s relief efforts. The group created a Milk Fund for Puerto Rican children and donated supplies in the wake of a hurricane.

Closer to home, Giddens hobnobbed with Puerto Rican migrants to Philadelphia, most of them likely middle class and involved in civic organizations. Giddens was well enough regarded in the growing Puerto Rican community that she was elected president of the Puerto Rican Civic Association in 1959. She also served as director of the Puerto Rican Women’s Committee, sat on the board of the Spanish Youth Congress, and advised the Puerto Rican Center at Berean Institute.

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Discover Puerto Rico U.S.A. Where the Americas meet, Frank S. Nicholson, between 1936 and 1940, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Many more Philadelphians encountered Giddens through her long career with the newspaper. In the mid-fifties, she sat on the Tribune’s Board of Directors and started to write a dressmaking column. Meanwhile, out of personal interest she began occasionally writing about Puerto Rico and its people. In late 1958, her efforts became a regular column titled “Under Two Flags,” which sought to “enlighten the public on the problems encountered and faced by the Puerto Rican migrant.” [2] The column ran with varying frequency until 1967. Giddens also provided the public with general updates in “Social Whirl,” which was later renamed “The Changing Scene.” In the early seventies, she penned a column that profiled local working women. In addition to writing, Giddens served as the paper’s Women’s Editor for more than a decade. Giddens had a strong and wide-ranging network of social connections, and she used the Tribune’s women’s pages to promote and publicize the activities of local programs and organizations.

Giddens’s contributions and popularity did not go unnoticed at the time. While presenting her with an award, radio personality Del Shields of WDAS-FM called her “the woman who literally holds the key of influence and leadership among women in Philadelphia.” [3] In addition to honors from many local organizations, the mayor recognized the breadth of her community service in 1963. She later received a Distinguished Service Award from President Gerald Ford for her work on the Philadelphia Selective Service Appeal Board. After leaving the Tribune in the early seventies and starting a public relations firm, Giddens passed away in 1989.

Giddens served black and Puerto Rican residents in several ways. She was a ubiquitous participant in clubs and civic organizations, where she often used her artistic, logistical, and social skills to coordinate impressive events. Given her popularity and level of involvement, she likely facilitated networking among Philadelphia’s black middle class, and may have inspired others to serve or donate resources. She also served as a type of cultural ambassador between Philadelphia’s black and Puerto Rican residents through her widely-disseminated columns and her involvement in early Puerto Rican organizations. These ties created a foundation for broader alliances as Philadelphia’s Puerto Rican population continued to grow in the following decades.

2019-03-28 15.36.43Alyssa Ribeiro is a historian of 20th century US cities, race, and ethnicity. She holds a PhD from Pitt and is currently an assistant professor of History and Black Studies at Allegheny College. She previously studied Black and Puerto Rican relations in Philadelphia and is now working on a book manuscript which traces how North Philadelphia residents responded to the pressures of deindustrialization, fiscal austerity, and growing political conservatism between the 1960s and the 1980s. You can read other brief essays she has written on related topics at the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/alyssa-ribeiro/). 

[1] Quote from Kendall Wilson, “Social Columnist Nancy L. Giddens Succumbs at 76,” Philadelphia Tribune, June 27, 1989.

[2] Quote from Nancy Giddens, “Under Two Flags,” Philadelphia Tribune, December 13, 1958.

[3] Quote from Priscilla Penn, “21 Key Club’s 2nd ‘Creative Arts’ Award Presented to Tribune Society Editor,” Philadelphia Tribune, December 11, 1962.

 

 

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